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Remembering Baseball’s Right-Wing Rotation

When three Padres pitchers came forward as members of the John Birch Society in 1984, the sports world was challenged by a different kind of political activism

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Baseball has always offered a safe space for a conservative athlete, the first baseman who squints and spits tobacco into a cup as he talks about big government. But in July 1984, it was still something of a shock to hear three pitchers stand in a major league clubhouse and talk about America’s slide toward communism.

“Capitalist nations will crumble and die from the inside — not the outside,” one of the pitchers said.

“Communism is not the end in itself,” another pitcher said. “It’s only a way to socialize the entire world, so special-interest groups will be the master. And we? We will be the slaves. If, that is, we even live.”

A third pitcher nodded at these ideas and said: “Before, I was just one of those people ignorant of what really goes on.”

The pitchers were Eric Show, Mark Thurmond, and Dave Dravecky of the San Diego Padres. As Los Angeles Times reporter Mike Granberry later noted, they comprised three-fifths of the Padres’ starting rotation.

Today, an athlete who tweets something ragged about politics usually claims his account has been hacked. But the Padres pitchers were spouting something like dogma. They were members of the John Birch Society, a right-wing group that had become infamous in the ’60s by warning of communist infiltration of America and then, by the ’80s, had receded into the conservative hinterlands. But if Birchism was less chic than Reaganism, the pitchers hardly seemed to mind. They appeared at the society’s events, gave interviews to its publications, and tried to sell the idea that — as one society slogan had it — “Happiness Is Being a Bircher.”

Granberry collected the pitchers’ quotes in a story that ran in the Times on July 8, 1984. The reaction within the sports world was electric, like the first time Colin Kaepernick knelt on the sideline. “Though this word didn’t exist so much in 1984, that story went viral,” Granberry told me. Newspapers around the country ran headlines like “3 Padres Admit Ties to Birchers.”

In our current boom period for athlete activism, another player kneeling during the national anthem barely rates a footnote. The ’80s were a sleepier time. “It was the Reagan era,” Steve Garvey, who started at first base on that Padres team, said recently. “There wasn’t the mix of politics and sports. I don’t think many of the players understood what the John Birch Society was to begin with. And to have it come out in the press …”

The story of the John Birch Padres is worth retelling not just because it offers a right-wing, funhouse-mirror version of the NFL protests. By reversing the political polarities, we can see more clearly what happens when athletes mix sports with politics. What do their teammates do? How do sportswriters cover it?

Whatever his politics, Show wasn’t a fringe ballplayer. In 1984, he was Birching — the society’s word for political evangelizing — all the way through the Padres’ run to the World Series. To hear Show tell it, nothing short of the fate of the world was at stake. “Our forefathers paid in blood for the freedoms we cherish today,” he told Granberry. “If, somehow, those freedoms were taken away … even baseball would cease to exist.”

George Sechrist couldn’t believe his good fortune. The John Birch Society had sent Sechrist to San Diego to coordinate its activities in the area. The booth Sechrist set up at the Del Mar Fair on June 15, 1984, was a typical Birch collection of American flags and political tracts. But Sechrist had sent out a press release touting a special attraction: three Padres pitchers would be there signing autographs.

The Padres were playing a home game against the Giants that night. But for more than an hour, Show, Dravecky, and Thurmond manned the booth in their baseball uniforms. For a society that didn’t have much money and had been pushed to the margins of American political life, it was a massive infusion of celebrity. Sechrist had bought a box of cheap vinyl baseballs for the players to sign. Gee, Sechrist remembered one of the pitchers saying, maybe we can get some real balls next time.

The Bircher Padres proved Tommy Lasorda’s old line that like-minded guys will always find each other in a major league clubhouse. The pitchers were all born within seven months of one another. Though they were raised in different parts of the country, they were among the few players who attended the team’s Sunday chapel services.

Dave Dravecky, 28 at the time, had become a born-again Christian while playing Double-A ball in Amarillo, Texas. Padres players regarded him as an ideal teammate and something of a moral figure in the clubhouse — one friend, struggling to describe Dravecky, said he had angel wings. Dravecky once remarked: “I think if Jesus Christ were in my shoes, he’d be one of the most aggressive pitchers around.”

Mark Thurmond, 27, was a second-year pitcher out of Texas A&M who was known for his rectitude. “He was so quiet I wouldn’t know he’d opened his mouth for anything,” said Norm Sherry, the team’s pitching coach. But Thurmond’s silence disguised a ferocity on the mound. One night, he busted slugger Dave Parker inside with a few pitches and managed to break his bat. Before the next day’s game, Parker came out onto the field holding a bat and said to Thurmond, “If you want this so bad, I’ll give it to you.”

Eric Show, 28, was the trio’s acknowledged leader and one of the most singular players to ever put on a major league uniform. A skinny pitcher with a prominent mustache, Show resented the idea that baseball players should be unthinking automatons. In the Birch Society’s New American magazine, he listed his hobbies as “philosophy, history, economics, astronomy, real estate, political affairs, business management — and, of course, God.”

Eric Show
Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images

“What should I learn?” Show later told the Los Angeles Times. “I should learn everything! … The question you should ask is, what should I leave out?” When a reporter was dispatched to write a piece on Show, he found Show in front of his locker reading The Fountainhead.

Show was a good pitcher (he is the Padres’ all-time wins leader), known for his fastball and his slider. But the fact he often preferred cutting jazz records to playing baseball put a distance between him and his teammates. “I kind of get the feeling Eric was like Jim Bouton,” said Bob Magnusson, a San Diego musician who played on one of his records. “Other guys couldn’t relate to him, couldn’t figure him out.”

Show was more than just a dilettante. He had an obsessive, searching mind. When he was 7 years old, he once recalled, he walked outside at night and noticed a “logic and design” in the stars. He set out to figure what that design might be. It was the beginning of a lifetime spent searching for answers to the biggest questions.

“He had an idea that things should add up,” said Padres pitcher Andy Hawkins. “That A plus B should equal C, that 1 plus 2 should equal 3. It’s not like that in baseball. There are too many gray areas. He could never understand how the perfect pitch could be hit.”

If any group offered a glimpse of the ecstatic truth that Show was searching for, it was the John Birch Society. Founded in 1958, the society was part of a galaxy of conservative organizations that warned of the dangers of communism. But where other conservatives were concerned with external threats like the Soviet Union, the Birchers’ focus was internal. “What made them distinct was that their hostility to the federal government was couched in conspiratorial terms,” said Darren Mulloy, who wrote a history of the society.

As Robert Welch, the society’s founder, noted: “Communism, in its unmistakable present reality, is wholly a conspiracy, a gigantic conspiracy to enslave mankind; an increasingly successful conspiracy controlled by determined, cunning, and utterly ruthless gangsters, willing to use any means to achieve its end.”

To read volumes like Welch’s The Politician was to see seemingly unrelated historical events rearranged into a master narrative of communist duplicity. At various times, Welch and other Birchers accused everyone from Dwight Eisenhower to the leaders of the civil rights movement of having fallen under the communists’ spell. Welch kept a map in his office on which each country was colored a shade of red to show its level of communist infiltration. He made the United States pink.

Last year, The New Yorker called the Birch Society “the most robust political fringe group of its day.” By the time Show joined, in 1981, the organization was more of an ancient bogeyman — a metaphor for radicalism rather than a going concern. Its membership, which once reportedly hovered around 100,000, had been cut in half. In 1983, the society’s president, a Georgia congressman named Larry McDonald, was killed when a commercial plane he was flying in was shot down by a Soviet SU-15.

But in San Diego in 1984, the Birch Society still maintained a beachhead. Gore Vidal called the city the society’s “Vatican.” There were more than 300 members in the area, many of whom attended businessman’s lunches and put bumper stickers on their cars reading “No Trillion Dollar Debt.” Up north in the San Bernardino National Forest, the society held a summer camp where teenagers could enjoy the usual wilderness fare while taking classes called “Conspiracy” and “Americanism 101.”

1984 also found San Diego experiencing a wave of militant social conservatism — the result of the presidential election and local religious leaders who were entering the political arena. A reverend named Dorman Owens and his followers marched through gay neighborhoods with signs that said, “Got AIDS yet?” A city north of town voted on whether to ban X-rated movies from cable TV systems. As one flyer put it, “What kind of man watches the Playboy Channel?”

Tim McCarver interviews Steve Garvey
Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

These forces made San Diego, perhaps as much as any city in modern major league history, a haven for right-leaning athletes. Garvey and the Chargers’ Kellen Winslow campaigned to re-elect Ronald Reagan. Ron Roenicke, an outfielder on the ’84 Padres who later became manager of the Brewers, remembers looking out from the dugout at Jack Murphy Stadium and seeing uniformed Marines sitting in the stands. “The Marines’ Hymn” would play over the PA system, and the Marines would yell, “Ooh-rah!”

Strains of racism also crept into San Diego sports. During the 1984 playoffs, Claire Smith, the African American sportswriter who won this year’s Spink Award, was thrown out of the Padres’ locker room by team employees even though women were fixtures in baseball locker rooms by that point. Garvey had to leave the locker room to give Smith quotes in the hallway. Six years later, a plastic figurine of Tony Gwynn was hung by a noose in the Padres’ dugout, effectively lynching the city’s most beloved athlete. As Gwynn said at the time, “Someone is out to get me, that’s for damn sure.”

On off days, Show and Sechrist would jump into Sechrist’s car and go on recruiting trips. Sechrist had drawn up lists of business leaders who were prime recruits for the society, and who might be amenable to a recruiting pitch if it was delivered by the Padres’ no. 1 starter. As soon as Show would get into the businessman’s office, he’d talk so much about baseball and the red menace that the visit would last an hour longer than it was supposed to. Sechrist would realize they had missed their next appointment.

The Birch Society felt that members had the responsibility to be loud and proud. “Good Birching and anonymity are mutually exclusive terms,” the society’s Bulletin noted.

Show loved Birching. “Democracy is only a transition to anarchy, leading to a totalitarian state,” he explained to the Los Angeles Times. “The only way to get out of this thing, short of revolution, is massive education, which I and my friends hope to provide.”

In addition to leading his own Birch chapter (the organization’s basic unit of membership), Show gave a speech at the society’s businessman’s lunch titled “Why the Media Attacks Those Who Stand Up for God, Family, and Country.” (Another time, the luncheon speaker was a former KGB agent.) When Show stumped for a local city-council candidate, he inveighed against the federal income tax and religious “neutralism” while members of the assembled crowd murmured, “Amen.”

Mark Thurmond
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

By August 13, 1984, the Padres had opened up a nine-and-a-half-game lead in the NL West. Show, Thurmond, and Dravecky were guests of honor at a giant “anti-sin” rally that took aim at abortion and homosexuality. When it was Show’s turn to speak, he said, “If a fetus growing inside a woman is not a baby, what is it? A giraffe?” Show turned to his attack on the media. “There’s free speech in America,” he said, “as long as you agree with The Washington Post and The New York Times.”

The idea of a dastardly media — a tune now played by President Donald Trump — was one in which Bircher and ballplayer could make common cause. During the Birch Society’s ascendancy, members claimed the media had made the society radioactive by focusing on its founder’s most outrageous statements. (In 1962, National Review’s William Buckley expelled Welch from the conservative movement.) In later decades, the Birch Society claimed that reporters ignored it, depriving the group of the oxygen it needed to grow.

“Why does the John Birch Society have such a bad reputation?” someone asked Show at the Del Mar Fair.

“The media,” Show replied.

The society’s in-house publications advanced another idea you now see among certain critics of the sports media: that a handful of loud, influential lefties were doing the thinking for other reporters. “What better way for the myriad of Liberal media small-fries to sound astute than to simply adopt the same editorial slants touted by the network and national ‘big guys!’” the Bulletin noted.

For a brief moment it seemed that the Padres pitchers’ Birching was working. On August 2, 1984, Yankees reliever Mike Armstrong revealed that he, too, had joined the society. Storm Davis, a pitcher who spent part of the 1987 season with the Padres, appeared with Show that year at the Birch booth at the Del Mar Fair. (Davis, who’s now a minor league coach with the Marlins, declined to comment.) The society announced that two former NFL players had also joined but kept their names secret.

“Media-wise, the John Birch Society is no longer a feeble, forgotten has-been,” the Birch Bulletin crowed. Indeed, the Padres organization had accidentally become an incubator for the society’s most high-profile recruiting drive in years. The Bulletin encouraged members to write thank-you letters to the team. But to any member who might get caught up with Show’s missionary zeal, the society also offered a warning: “No Birching please; they have all they need.”

Alan Wiggins, the Padres’ African American second baseman, cut his own iconoclastic figure in the clubhouse. Teammates often found him listening to audiotapes of Malcolm X speeches. Wiggins once gave a tape to a sportswriter. When the writer asked him why, Wiggins replied, “I’m trying to save one white soul.” Wiggins was floored when reporters appeared at his locker asking if he thought his teammates had joined a racist organization.

Most members of the Padres were content to ignore their teammates’ politics. “Half of these guys didn’t know what the John Birch Society was,” said Dick Dent, who was the Padres’ trainer. “They just knew if Show was involved, it had to be something wacko.

But the idea that the pitchers had embraced a racist group was dangerous —something that could tear apart the locker room. The case that the Birch Society was racist — which the society fiercely denied — rested on two claims.

During the civil rights movement, critics said the organization’s distrust of federal power was merely a cover for white supremacy. Second, the Birchers often claimed that the civil rights movement had been infiltrated or even directed by communists. In It’s Very Simple, a book that was popular among Birchers, author Alan Stang concluded that “the ‘civil rights movement’ is for the most part a Communist operation under the cloak of which the Communists hope to capture this country. … I accuse the Rev. Dr. King of being in effect one of the country’s most influential workers for communism against the Negroes.” Show gave a copy of the book to Wiggins to explain the society’s beliefs.

When reporters confronted him, Show said he had investigated the Birch Society and concluded it wasn’t racist, merely anticommunist. “For gosh sakes, the two things I’m most involved in are dominated by blacks,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Jazz and sports.”

None of the dozen Padres players and coaches and media members I talked to had heard Show or the other two pitchers say anything racist. “None of ’em in any way were racial,” said Craig Lefferts, a reliever who now works for the A’s organization. “They were completely the opposite of that.”

“I knew ’em like the back of my hand,” said Andy Hawkins, who works in the Royals organization. “There was nothing racist, nothing like that.”

The 83-year-old former Padres hitting coach Deacon Jones, who is African American, told me he saw no racial incidents in the locker room. “There was nothing teamwise,” he said. “We didn’t have a meeting to discuss it. We just had a group of crazy dudes that expressed their opinions.”

When reporters descended on Wiggins’s locker in 1984, he at first seemed unsure about the society. “I have heard over the years lots of rumors about the Birch Society, rumors that are hard to ignore,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I had heard the charges of racism and anti-Semitism. From what Eric tells me, those are used to discredit the organization. I just … don’t know.”

Soon, as reports of team discord began making their way through the press, Wiggins found himself softening. “I have just one thing to say about it,” he said a few days later. “I know they’re all good people. Maybe they just got into something that they didn’t have enough facts about.” (Wiggins died in 1991.)

“It’s ridiculous,” Garry Templeton, the team’s African American shortstop, told the media. “I’ve known that Eric was a member of the John Birchers for two years, and it was never an issue. We’ve kidded around about it, just like I kid around about a lot of things. But we’ve never had a serious discussion. Now, I’m hearing from other people that there’s a lot of dissension on this team. To me, it was done to create a lot of unnecessary controversy.”

Templeton (who didn’t respond to messages left with the Padres) seemed to be suggesting that a ballplayer should have some latitude to express political ideas, even distasteful ones. Show liked to point out that musical acts were always probed for their political thoughts — why shouldn’t ballplayers be? An attempt by the Padres organization to silence the pitchers — one that resembled Jerry Jones’s threat to bench players who knelt during the national anthem — was met with fierce internal resistance. As Templeton said of Show, “He’s free to do what he wants, including politics, religion, and love. How can I complain when I wouldn’t want him complaining if I were a Muslim?”

Barry Bloom, who covered the team for The San Diego Tribune, told me that the Padres, like the ’70s Oakland A’s and New York Yankees, won despite an atmosphere of continuous chaos. In 1984, Padres manager Dick Williams nearly got in a fight with a player at a hotel bar. That August, when Wiggins was hit by a pitch in a game against Atlanta, the Padres retaliated by throwing at the offending Braves pitcher four times. In the massive brawl that followed, Braves fans leaped out of the stands to attack the Padres. The team processed the Bircher revelations as just another controversy in a season full of them.

Mostly, the ’84 Padres did what baseball players do when they’re presented with something odd or unfamiliar: They gave their teammates a lot of shit. Infielder Tim Flannery pretended to mishear the group’s name as the bird society and brought binoculars and a field guide to the locker room. Within a few weeks, extremist politics had been reduced to an eccentric hobby, the kind of thing that gets a line in the media guide.

“Heck,” reliever Goose Gossage said at the time, “it’s just like being a Catholic, I guess.”

Barry Bloom was on assignment when Mike Granberry’s story was printed in the Los Angeles Times. A bearded man who wore big, ’80s-style glasses, Bloom was the undisputed king of the Padres beat. Like any good beat man, he often annoyed the players with accurate reporting. At one point during the 1984 season, the Padres voted 24–1 not to talk to Bloom anymore, with only Steve Garvey defending Bloom’s honor. Now Bloom had the most unpleasant work: He had to “match” an explosive story broken by a competitor and get his version out fast.

Bloom knew Show well. He had heard Show talk about politics and never detected any hint of bigotry. But he interviewed Wiggins and Templeton, who assured him that any tales of clubhouse discord were false. On July 13, Bloom published a largely exculpatory Tribune piece with the headline “Padres Try to Set the Record Straight.”

The Padres were in St. Louis when Bloom’s story came out. In the Pre-internet Era, that meant trouble. Few players actually read the story. But a lot of them had it described to them by wives and friends back in San Diego. By the end of that game of telephone, many players thought Bloom had written the opposite story: that the Birch revelations were tearing apart the Padres. Players started yelling at him as soon as he stepped into the clubhouse.

Bloom thought Show ought to read the story himself. So he escorted the pitcher, who was already wearing his uniform, into the press box, where Show read it on Bloom’s computer. Perhaps at that point Show realized how big the story was — how every visiting writer would want to write his own piece on the Bircher Padres. “This is terrible!” Show said.

San Diego didn’t have a thundering, Olympian columnist in the model of Dick Young or Mike Lupica. But it had Ted Leitner, a sportscaster who did the 11 p.m. news on Channel 8. Leitner was less an Anchorman goldenthroat than a columnist on TV. Instead of running highlights of auto racing, which he hated, he showed a traffic cam of the San Diego freeways. He read funny, piercing commentaries in a segment called “Leitner Strikes.” (A producer put a lightning-bolt graphic behind him to complete the effect.) Leitner didn’t spare the Padres, even though he had a sidelight working as the team’s play-by-play man.

When he heard about the Bircher Padres, Leitner was conflicted. He was friendly with Dravecky and his wife, Jan. (Dravecky declined to comment for this story.) Their children went trick-or-treating together. “It’s hard to nail guys like that,” Leitner said recently. “But I was young and impetuous and emboldened, and I did.” He later called the organization “myopic” and “fanatic.”

Dave Dravecky
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

It was Leitner’s pique, rather than Bloom’s restraint, that set the tone in the national media. A.S. “Doc” Young, a columnist for the African American newspaper the Los Angeles Sentinel, wrote that the Birchers had “blasphemed” Jackie Robinson’s legacy and said that he wouldn’t be surprised to learn that major league clubhouses had been infiltrated by the Ku Klux Klan.

Elsewhere, you could see writers attacking the pitchers with an argument later used on Colin Kaepernick: a ballplayer talking about politics was fine, but the clubhouse wasn’t the right “time or place.” “I don’t care if the three pitchers are members of the JBS, Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, Socialist, or Conservative parties,” wrote a Hartford Courant columnist. “It’s their business. But I wish they would keep quiet about it during the baseball season.”

The sports media wasn’t the bastion of liberalism it would become in later years. But the Bircher Padres thought it was. “One thing I’ve learned is that I’m not going to try to defend any of my positions with the liberal press anymore,” Dravecky complained to the society’s New American magazine. “It doesn’t do any good to try to defend them. They’re going to blast you whether you’re right or not.”

“Yeah, I suppose our beliefs are ‘extremist’ to our liberal critics,” Show said. “Love of God, family, and country doesn’t fit into their mind-set.”

The three pitchers were flogging an idea that would later become an article of faith on the right: the media might tolerate some political speech among ballplayers … so long as that speech is liberal. “As long as the athlete travels down the one-way street in the direction of the arrows, he will be held up as an OK guy, a stalwart, a clear thinker,” Terry Kennedy, the team’s catcher, wrote to me in an email. “Anyone who speaks their mind from the right/conservative/whatever-you-want-to-call-it [viewpoint] is either an idiot or a bigot.”

It’s a rite of the baseball clubhouse that any bad press, real or imagined, eventually gets turned into a rallying cry. The media is trying to divide us! The Padres indulged in this, too. “The media didn’t mean to do it,” Show told the Los Angeles Times, “but it pulled our team together when that stuff came out.”

By the fall, Show’s Birching was crowded out of the sports page by the Padres’ wins. The Padres had finished above .500 just once in their history. Now, they were cruising toward a 92–70 record. In later summer, Mark Thurmond threw the first shutout of his career and strung together 21 straight scoreless innings. “I think everybody is going to fill out their Birch memberships now,” Kennedy told the Los Angeles Times.

Picking up his jazz guitar hobby, Show would record a single called “Padres Win Again”:

The game of baseball’s funny,
And sometimes I don’t know why,
Everybody gets so nervous,
Just because my ball is high.

But I don’t really sweat it.
I relax and stay loose
It’s not so hard to do,
When in the bullpen you got the Goose.

Show donated part of the proceeds from the record to the Birch Society. By late September, for the first time ever, the Padres were in the playoffs.

Show insisted he wasn’t going to mix baseball and politics during the postseason. “I can always have a no-comment or take the Fifth Amendment 51 times like Alger Hiss did,” he joked.

But on off-days, when the big national reporters gathered around his locker for a story, Show started Birching. One reporter asked if he felt pressure starting the first postseason game in Padres history. “Pressure?” Show said. “Pressure is dying and meeting God when you’re an atheist. Pressure is living your life on a gulag in the Soviet Union.”

Show got shelled in Game 1 of the NLCS against the Cubs, a performance he blamed on a flaw in his delivery that made his pitches stay up in the zone. After the Padres came back from a two-games-to-nothing deficit to force a deciding Game 5, Show was shelled again, managing only four outs. The team rallied and won the game anyway. The same night, in a presidential debate, Ronald Reagan told Walter Mondale, “There you go again …”

Show didn’t love Reagan. “He’s too far left for me,” he told the press. “He’ll take us down the river a little slower than Mondale. … The point is, he is taking us down the river.”

“Our government supports communism,” he said later. “Communist nations have murdered over 100 million people in the world. They’ve broken about 50 treaties. Look around, it’s not that hard to see. Would you make a pact with Charles Manson?”

In the World Series, the Padres faced a loaded Tigers team. Mark Thurmond lost Game 1, a tight, 3–2 affair in which Tigers pitcher Jack Morris went the full nine. Show pitched in Game 4, also squaring off with Morris, and gave up three earned runs in 2 2/3 innings. For the postseason, Show finished with a 12.38 ERA. “After the playoffs and the World Series, I was treated by the media like I had gone 1–10 for the year,” he said. “Everything else I had done up to that time was forgotten — history.”

The Padres lost the series four games to one. But in a baseball desert like San Diego, 1984 had the feel of a dream season. “I’ve been waiting for a pennant so long in San Diego, I’d be for these guys even if they joined the Flat Earth Society,” one local columnist wrote. When the Padres returned home after Game 5, more than 10,000 fans were waiting in the stadium parking lot.

The next season, the same fans booed Show. He blamed politics. “When a guy gets caught with drugs and comes back, he’s a hero,” he said. “When another believes in traditional American values, suddenly he’s a criminal.” Yet Show’s zeal for Birching never dimmed. He continued to make annual appearances at the booth at the Del Mar Fair until 1988.

“If he had come along 25 years later,” Steve Garvey told me, “things might have been a little different for him.” Today, it’s unlikely that every player in the majors would have given Show’s opinions a pass. But Show would have fit more easily inside today’s celebrity-media apparatus, with Fox News hosts primed to defend him on TV and Gateway Pundit primed to defend him on Twitter. “Sports is more political now,” Garvey said, “and I think politics is more like sports.”

Colin Kaepernick has charged owners with colluding to keep him out of the NFL because of his protests. But Show’s political activities caused him no ill effects at all. A few months after the World Series, the Padres signed him to a four-year, $2.7 million contract — good money in 1985. Asked how much his Birchism cost him at the negotiating table, his former agent Steve Greenberg told me, “Zero. The only thing that hurt him is when he gave up runs.” Show was the team’s Opening Day starter in 1986 and again in 1987.

The Bircher Padres played together for parts of two more seasons before embarking on wildly different paths. Ironically, Eric Show became a poster boy for the moral decay he had railed against. Around 1990, he began using meth, according to ESPN. He later began using cocaine. In 1994, Show died in a rehab center after ingesting a speedball. “I thought we’d work together on the cause for decades,” said George Sechrist, the former Birch organizer. “But I trust I’ll see him again.”

In 1988, when he was pitching for the Giants, Dave Dravecky was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in his left arm. A year later, he made a dramatic return to the mound, only to have his humerus bone shatter in his second start; his arm was later amputated, ending his career. Dravecky is now a sought-after motivational speaker.

Mark Thurmond pitched six more seasons in the bigs before retiring to Texas to sell insurance. He left the John Birch Society in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. Over the phone, Thurmond politely declined to discuss his old political activities. The country is just too polarized, he said.

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